With Democrat Al Gore’s presidential candidacy surging, the Republican National Committee and its Jewish support group are hoping to erode his support among Jews and whites by linking him to the Rev. Al Sharpton.
"Al Sharpton is a racist anti-Semite with blood on his hands," said Chris Paulitz, a spokesman for the RNC in Washington who is gathering information on controversial Sharpton statements on behalf of national chairman Jim Nicholson. "He is the David Duke of the Democrat Party. Why has Al Gore and most of the Democrat Party embraced this hate-monger?"
The RNC is distributing "talking points" on Sharpton to Republican activists and, according to sources, Nicholson is mulling an ad campaign highlighting Sharpton’s Feb. 13 private meeting with Gore in hopes of eroding Gore’s appeal to conservative and moderate voters. The vice president swept 16 states, including New York, in the crucial Super Tuesday primaries this week.
"We’re trying to wrap Gore’s victory around kissing Sharpton’s ring," said one Republican insider.
The RNC is also circulating comments by Republican Jewish Coalition director Matthew Brooks that "Al Sharpton’s record of bigotry, racism and anti-Semitism is well-documented and beyond question." Brooks blasted Gore supporter John Conyers, a black Detroit congressman who last week said anti-Semitism attributed to Sharpton was "exaggerated and overdrawn."
Sharpton, meanwhile, is firing back by pointing to his 1995 meeting with Republican Gov. George Pataki, who chairs the New York campaign of GOP front-runner George W. Bush. Sharpton visited the governor’s mansion in 1995.
Questioning why Nicholson did not criticize Pataki for the meeting, Sharpton vowed to release TV footage of the get-together to make the chairman "look like a complete idiot. How does he impose on Democrats what he doesn’t on Pataki?"
Pataki spokesman Michael McKeon said Sharpton had been one of "between 75 to 100" black leaders invited to Albany by the governor at that time.
"The governor did a lot of reaching out in the first term to people who supported him, and some who didn’t," said McKeon.
But Sharpton insists he received a personal invitation and was asked to bring along a handful of other black clergy for an intimate breakfast with Pataki.
The Sharpton tactic is an apparent GOP response to the Democrats’ attacks on Bush for his appearance at Bob Jones University in South Carolina, which has been accused of spreading racism, anti-Catholicism and homophobia.
Of the two Democrats running for president, Gore has been the more restrained where Sharpton is concerned. The vice president met privately with the activist reverend at the Manhattan home of his daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff, and only after Sharpton threatened to picket Gore’s campaign events.
Gore’s challenger, Bill Bradley, has held two public meetings with Sharpton, including a visit to Sharpton’s National Action Network headquarters in Harlem, which Sharpton calls the House of Justice.
Gore’s campaign in Nashville, Tenn., did not return calls.
But asked about Sharpton during a March 1 debate in Los Angeles, Gore cited the more than 125,000 votes for the reverend in the 1997 New York mayoral primary. "He is undeniably a person to whom some people in the city look as a spokesperson," said Gore, according to a CNN transcript.
Gore acknowledged that Sharpton had made some controversial statements. "I do condemn the language that he used. I think that in America we believe in redemption and the capacity of all our people to transcend limitations that they have made evident in their lives in the past," the vice president said.
Gore later added: "Look at the number of rabbis who went to join Reverend Sharpton in his organizing of demonstrations and pickets following the Abner Louima case … and the [Amadou] Diallo case."
A small number of Jews affiliated with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice have joined forces with Sharpton in his protests against police brutality. The majority of organized Jewry, however, will have nothing to do with him.
In fact, several Jewish activists, such as Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale and Borough Park Assemblyman Dov Hikind, said they steered clear of the Diallo protests out of reluctance to make common cause with Sharpton. Some who marched with Sharpton later admitted it made them uncomfortable.
It is unclear whether the Republican tactic stands to hurt Gore, given his long history of support for Israel and other Jewish causes.
"Al Gore has a longstanding positive relationship with the Jewish community," said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs in Washington. "Very few people will not vote for him solely on the basis that he met with Al Sharpton. At the same time, at some point in the campaign he’s going to have to address it [in the Jewish community]."
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the Jewish community "is sophisticated enough to keep its eyes on the issues and is able to differentiate between what is significant and what is hyperbole.
"Al Sharpton has been a lot of things: a rabble-rouser who plays on the fringes of anti-Semitism and has engaged in racism. But he is not an enemy of the Jewish people."
Sharpton insisted the RNC tactic would backfire. "Clearly they should be asked why are you doing this at a time when people are working together, when I have been working with Jews on the Gary Busch [Borough Park shooting] case and the Amadou Diallo case. Clearly they are playing the politics of polarization. What they will do is energize a huge turnout of people who don’t want to see that kind of politics."
Sharpton recalled that the RNC chairman had publicly courted Pat Buchanan, the right-wing Republican who has questioned the Holocaust and wrote of Hitler’s "great courage."
"Nicholson urged Pat Buchanan publicly to stay in the Republican Party, despite his statements about Hitler," said Sharpton. "How does he tell Democrats not to meet with me and have someone openly biased like Pat Buchanan in his party? If all Nicholson could answer Bob Jones with is Al Sharpton, it shows the weakness of their strategy."
Sharpton also pointed out that earlier this year Bush had visited a Harlem charter school run by the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, co-president of Sharpton’s National Action Network. "Everyone knows he’s associated with me," said Sharpton. "He’s trying to indirectly deal with our forces."
The Sharpton issue has ignited a feud between the Republican Jewish Coalition and its counterpart, the National Jewish Democratic Council. After Brooks blasted Conyers, insisting Sharpton had used the terms "Jew bastards" and "bloodsucking Jews," the NJDC challenged Brooks to substantiate that claim. Although Sharpton has attended rallies in which such language was used, there is no record of his having uttered those words.
"It hurts our community when, in attacking anti-Semitism, you put words in people’s mouths, even someone who is as distasteful as Al Sharpton." said NJDC director Ira Forman.
Brooks replied that the NJDC should "stop apologizing for and defending the indefensible actions of this demagogue; he has enough supporters doing propaganda for him. It’s an embarrassment for a national Jewish organization to volunteer for that job."
Forman said the RJC had coordinated with the RNC "to take the spotlight off George W. Bush" after the bad publicity of the Bob Jones flap.